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Tibbott v. Northern Cambria School District

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

June 13, 2017

JOY TIBBOTT, Plaintiff,



         I. Introduction

         This matter comes before the Court on a Motion to Disqualify Counsel (ECF No. 37) filed by Defendant Northern Cambria School District seeking to disqualify the law firm of Steele Schneider and its attorneys, Kelli J. Vandergrift and Marcus B. Schneider, from continuing to represent Plaintiff Joy Tibbott in this case. Plaintiff opposes the motion. (ECF No. 38). For the following reasons, the Court will DENY the motion.

         II. Jurisdiction and Venue

         The Court has jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331 and 1343. Venue is proper under 28 U.S.C. § 1391(b).

         III. Background

         Plaintiff was formerly the principal of Northern Cambria High School. After leaving that role (for reasons that will be explained in greater detail below), she transitioned to a position in the School District's Central Administrative Office. She was furloughed from that position in May 2014. Thereafter, she applied for several positions with the School District, for which she was not selected. Instead, she was placed in an Eighth-grade teaching position, which has resulted in a lower salary and less seniority.

         On January 6, 2016, she initiated this action, alleging that the decision to furlough her and the refusal to place her in the positions for which she applied constituted retaliation under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, Title VII, the ADA, and the ADEA. The School District filed an Answer on January 26, 2016. Pursuant to this Court's most recent Scheduling Order, fact discovery was to have ended on May 17, 2017. (ECF No. 30). Meanwhile, on February 3, 2017, Plaintiff filed a Motion for Leave to File Amended Complaint (ECF No. 26), in which she seeks to add a procedural due process claim. More specifically, she claims that she learned during discovery that her "furlough" was actually a "termination" and, in turn, that she should have been afforded "due process under the Fourth Amendment, in addition to a panoply of state-created rights supplied by the Pennsylvania School Code." (ECF No. 26 ¶ 20).

         On March 24, 2017, the School District filed this motion (ECF No. 37), seeking to disqualify Steele Schneider from further representing Plaintiff in this matter. According to the motion, Charles Steele, [1] who is affiliated with the law firm of Steele Schneider, represented Donna Frontino and her children, Adriana and Joseph, in a matter against the School District and Plaintiff in early 2013. Donna Frontino, through Mr. Steele, claimed that Plaintiff and the School District violated her children's rights under Title IX and the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The matter was settled during mediation in February 2013 before a complaint was filed. As part of the settlement, the parties agreed, among other things, that Plaintiff would transition from her position as high school principal to a position in the School District's Administrative Office, where she would continue to work throughout the 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 school years. The parties further agreed that Plaintiff would not have any contact with the Frontino children.

         The effect of the settlement agreement is critical to the School District's defense of Plaintiff's claims in this case. In the School District's view, hiring Plaintiff for any of the positions for which she would have applied "would have been in direct violation" of the settlement agreement. (ECF No. 37 ¶ 26).

         In its motion, the School District argues that Steele Schneider should be disqualified for two reasons: (1) "Attorney Steele's representation of the Frontinos and [his] participation in drafting the Settlement Agreement and Release" creates a conflict of interest under Rules 1.7 and 1.9 of the Pennsylvania Rules of Professional Conduct; (2) "Attorney Steele will be a necessary and material witness, " so Steele Schneider's continued representation of Plaintiff would violate Rule 3.7(b) of the Rules of Professional Conduct. (ECF No. 37 at ¶¶ 38, 61).

         IV. Legal Standard

         A district court "may disqualify an attorney only when 'disqualification is an appropriate means of enforcing the applicable disciplinary rule, ' keeping in mind 'any countervailing policies, such as permitting a litigant to retain the counsel of his choice and enabling attorneys to practice without excessive restrictions.'" Jackson v. Rohm & Haas Co., 366 F.App'x 342, 347 (3d Cir. 2010) (quoting United States v. Miller, 624 F.2d 1198, 1201 (3d Cir. 1980)); Mumma v. Bobali Corp., 382 F.App'x 209, 210 (3d Cir. 2010). To disqualify opposing counsel, a movant must clearly show that continued representation by opposing counsel would be impermissible under the Rules of Professional Conduct. Buschmeier v. G & G Invs., Inc., 2007 WL 4150408 (W.D. Pa. Nov. 19, 2007) (citing Cohen v. Oasin, 844 F.Supp. 1065, 1067 (E.D. Pa. 1994)). Disqualification is a harsh measure which is generally disfavored by courts, and courts have an obligation to prevent parties from using disqualification motions for tactical purposes. Id. (citing Commonwealth Ins. Co. v. Graphix Hot Line, Inc., 808 F.Supp. 1200, 1203 (E.D. Pa. 1992)).

         V. ...

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